A lease is a contract, and contracts are not designed to be easily broken. That said, New Jersey law mentions several specific circumstances in which tenants can unilaterally—that is, without their landlord’s agreement—terminate a lease early, without going to court. These laws protect tenants experiencing domestic violence and those who have recently been disabled, among others. New Jersey landlords are also responsible for keeping their units habitable. If they fail, tenants may have the ability to terminate a lease early.
Tenants and landlords can always negotiate ending a lease
There are numerous reasons a tenant may want to break a lease, and many—perhaps most—have nothing to do with a problem with the rental unit or the landlord. A tenant may get a new job, marry, or simply find a new apartment that works better for their lifestyle. In these cases, the best way to end a lease is to negotiate. Tenants should reach out to their landlord as soon as they think they may need to end a lease early. They should also work to find a replacement tenant who would be willing to sign a new lease. Landlords and tenants can also negotiate a lease break fee, if one is not mentioned in the lease.
Lease-break provisions are legal in New Jersey
New Jersey law does not prevent landlords and tenants from including so-called “lease break provisions” in leases. These sorts of clauses lay out how much a tenant will owe in penalty fees if they want to end their lease early. Note that these clauses don’t eliminate a landlord’s duty to mitigate damages if a tenant decides to move out without paying the fee.
Tenant may be “constructively evicted” if the rental unit is in bad condition
New Jersey law recognizes the concept of “constructive eviction.”1 If a rental unit becomes uninhabitable or unsafe, and the landlord doesn’t fix the problem, a tenant can vacate the unit and stop paying rent. If the landlord turns around and sues the tenant for unpaid rent, the tenant can use the condition of the unit as a defense in court—in essence, claiming they’ve been constructively evicted.
There are a few things to note regarding constructive eviction. First, a tenant should inform a landlord of any defects and give the landlord a “reasonable” amount of time to make the repairs, before the tenant picks up and leaves.2 Although state law doesn’t explicitly define what period of time would be considered reasonable, in practice, conditions that make a unit unlivable or uninhabitable should be fixed immediately. Tenants are not expected to go without water or heat, or live with bug infestations or crumbling floors, for too long. Second, a tenant must actually vacate their rental unit to successfully claim constructive eviction as a defense.
Tenants should understand that constructive eviction is always judged “after the fact,” by a court of law. In New Jersey, tenants cannot “declare” a constructive eviction and terminate a lease. It is a defense that tenants can use in unpaid rent lawsuits, after they have vacated the unit. It is also a hefty legal burden to meet—conditions must truly render a unit “unlivable.” Messy common areas, the occasional cockroach, or a few cracks in the plaster are almost certainly insufficient to warrant a constructive eviction.
Victims of domestic violence can terminate their lease
In New Jersey, tenants experiencing domestic violence can terminate their lease early without a landlord’s approval.3 This protection extends to anyone who lives with a victimized family member, as well. To break their lease, the tenant must inform their landlord in writing that they are under imminent threat of serious physical harm from someone. The must also provide the landlord with any of the following proof:
- A restraining order or order of protection
- A police report or other official documentation
- A medical report
- A report from a domestic violence victim’s advocate
A certification from a licensed social worker that the tenant or a member of the tenant’s family is a victim of domestic violence
The lease is considered terminated 30 days after the landlord received the written notice.4 Once the lease is terminated, the tenant isn’t required to pay any additional rent. Any rent owed for the month in which termination occurs will be paid on a “pro rata” basis. For example, if the lease terminates in exactly the middle of the month, the tenant will owe rent for the first half of the month only.
Tenants with new medical conditions may be able to end a lease early
In New Jersey, if a tenant or a tenant’s spouse “suffers a disabling illness or accident,” the tenant may be able to terminate a lease early.5 The tenant must provide the landlord written notice of their intention to terminate, along with a medical record of the disability, proof that it has resulted in loss of income, and further proof that any existing pension or social security payments will be insufficient to pay rent. This applies to individuals of all ages.
If a tenant follows these rules, their lease will terminate 40 days from the date the landlord receives the written notice. Rent must be paid up to that time and should be prorated for the month in which termination occurs.
Elderly tenants can break their lease to move to assisted living facilities
If a tenant is at least 62 years old and needs to move to an assisted living facility or nursing home, the tenant or their legal representative must provide the landlord with written notice that they're terminating the lease, a statement of a physician that such a move is necessary, and proof of acceptance into such a facility. The lease will end 40 days after the landlord received the written notice, and prorated rent should be paid up until that date.5
New Jersey doesn’t offer additional protections for service members
Under the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, members of the U.S. armed forces can terminate residential leases if they are deployed to active duty during a lease period, or if they are deployed to a different location for at least 90 days.6 Certain states, including Texas and Florida, grant even stronger protections to members of the military—but that’s not the case in New Jersey.
Landlords have a duty to try and re-rent vacant units
In New Jersey, landlords have a legal duty to make good-faith efforts to re-rent a rental unit after a tenant has moved out (assuming they didn’t negotiate a formal end to their lease).7 This is called the “duty to mitigate.” Once a tenant has informed a landlord that they have vacated a unit, the landlord must make a reasonable effort to find a replacement tenant. Once there is a new tenant in place, the old lease is over and the original tenant is off the hook for any remaining rent payments. If the landlord doesn’t try to mitigate damages by looking for a new renter, the original tenant isn’t required to keep paying rent.
However, a landlord isn’t required to actually rent the unit—only to make good-faith efforts to do so. If the landlord tries and fails to find a new tenant, the old tenant is still legally required to keep paying rent until their lease is up.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.